A closer look at EMU's new president

On July 1 Eastern Michigan University’s new president, James M. Smith will be moving into his office in Welch Hall.

Smith began his career as a public school teacher in Ohio. He moved into public higher education administration in the 1990s. He’s worked at Indiana University – South Bend, Butler University and West Texas A & M University. He has been the president of Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota since 2009.

“I have been a president for the last six and a half years,” Smith said to the press February 12. “It’s been a place where I’ve known students. And I want to carry that forward with me as I’m here at Eastern Michigan University.”

Smith obtained his PhD in educational leadership from Miami University and a bachelor’s of science there as well. He attended Xavier University to obtain his master’s degree.

When at Indiana University – South Bend, he was running a campus with 1,300 majors and a staff of 100 as Dean of the School of Education.

While at Northern State, Smith oversaw a tremendous amount of growth. According to WKMS, an NPR affiliate, the university expanded in its programs and regional standing while he was there.

Smith has also encountered his fair share of difficulties. NSU, which is about a sixth of the size of EMU, has had to deal with some cutbacks to funding in 2013. But enrollment remains steady, according to South Dakota’s local NBC affiliate.

The college was ranked 56th in the Midwest, according to US News & World Report.

His appointment, and election by the Board of Regents, is the culmination of months of search after the resignation of Susan Martin, EMU’s first female president.

Donald Loppnow served as interim president for the second time in his career during the search. The professor of 40 years came out of retirement to be a placeholder until the nationwide search for our new president, which started in April 2015, ended.

On February 12, the room was packed in Welch Hall with the Board of Regents, the student government and all of the big names in Michigan media.

“Thank you all for being here for this historic occasion and showing your support today,” Regent Vice-Chair Mary Treder said on that day.

The university received 81 applications, which was reduced to a pool of 11, to 3, to Smith. The process of finding Martin’s successor was criticized however for its lack of transparency. It was a closed process, which was different from EMU’s usual “open forum.”

Presidential Search Committee Chair, and Regent, Michelle Crumm maintained that the closed door policy was necessary to attract talent without having to worry about any backlash from the university they currently work at. Although as a previous Echo article reports, they did say that the process “does not allow broad based campus/community involvement.”

Student Government Resolution 102-02 formally expressed the Student Senate’s discontent back in October, as reported by the Eastern Echo. It passed unanimously.

Then student body president Steven Cole said at the meeting that the Regents that “[left] up the curtain say ‘this is your new president,’ with no campus interactions at all.”

Student involvement was absent. But three faculty members were part of the 12-person Presidential Search Committee. But the Faculty Senate pulled out of the process in November. This was unprecedented.

The faculty senate had offered to replace the closed-search midway through the way to find Smith and replace it with a two-tier system. The Board of Regents rejected this. An offer to include one more faculty member to the search committee was not accepted.

In a letter to the faculty senate, Crumm said that the closed process “requires confidence in the Board of Regents to take into consideration general campus sentiment and feedback gathered in listening sessions.”

Smith was asked about that during a Q & A session after his appointment in February. The ink was still drying on his contract.

“Closed searches are not popular on campuses. I think we know why,” Smith answered. “I can say this as a candidate: we don't get to choose whether they're open or closed searches. We get to choose whether we think the institution is a place that is a good fit with who we are.”

When asked about how he feels about EMU’s involvement with the much-criticized Education Achievement Authority, Smith said “Sometimes you do things and they don’t work and then you have to be bright enough to exit. I think that’s what we’ve seen in this process.”

Once Smith takes office, he plans to travel around campus and get to know each department individually. As an avid walker, Smith promised to get out of Welch Hall and walk through campus to be more available to students than normal.

“I look forward to meeting with the students and having the opportunity to engage with them. It is the greatest delight of a president to be able to work with students,” Smith said. 

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